Friday, April 18, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom: Crowning Joy

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) • View trailer for The Forbidden Kingdom
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and too harshly, for fantasy violence and martial-arts action
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.18.08
Buy DVD: The Forbidden Kingdom • Buy Blu-Ray: The Forbidden Kingdom (2-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

Fun, fun, fun.

American attempts to reproduce the stylized atmosphere of Hong Kong martial arts epics usually fail miserably; most Hollywood writers and directors simply cannot match the blend of fantasy, archetypal characters, luxuriously choreographed battle scenes and — most important — the whimsical humor that must not devolve into camp burlesque.
Contemporary American teen Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano, center) is
wholly out of his element after a magical journey to ancient China. And he very
nearly doesn't survive the martial arts "training session" implemented by his
two new friends: the Silent Monk (Jet Li, left) and Lu Yan (Jackie Chan).

Quentin Tarantino gets it, as he demonstrated during sections of his Kill Bill opus.

So do director Rob Minkoff and scripter John Fusco.

Their collaboration on The Forbidden Kingdom has resulted in an opulent Asian fairy tale that's right at home with the genre's classics, many of which are lovingly referenced during a clever title credits sequence that incorporates images and typography from vintage chop-socky movie posters. Indeed, it's easy to imagine that, once upon a time, Minkoff and Fusco spent their formative years in the sort of room occupied by their story's young hero, with every square inch of space occupied by martial arts posters, action figures, DVDs and other memorabilia.

Clearly, they live and breathe this stuff, and we're the richer for their genre awareness.

On top of which, this film finally provides the match-up long anticipated by hungry fans: the shared screen billing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. And yes, they fight each other — only once, and quite spectacularly — before recognizing, in the best tradition of impetuous comic book superheroes, that they're actually on the same side.

The story:

While haunting his favorite Chinatown pawnshop in the hopes of finding yet another bootleg kung-fu DVD, Chicago teen Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) stumbles across a strange and oddly compelling staff. The wizened shop owner mumbles something about guarding it until an individual foretold by prophecy arrives, to help return it to its rightful owner.

Then comes the lapse in judgment: Our young hero is forced by a gang of local thugs to return to the shop later that evening, to help them get inside in order to rob the place. Jason's involvement in this invasion, with its unexpectedly violent climax, is the script's sole misstep: a moral lapse that demands a level of atonement never really addressed in the rest of the film.

Suddenly fleeing a gun- toting thug, Jason grabs the staff ... and is shocked when it literally drags him into another time and place.

Astonished to find himself in ancient China, Jason very nearly doesn't last an hour, as he's attacked by soldiers in the service of the powerful — and quite evil — Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). Our misplaced Chicago teen survives only thanks to the intervention of Lu Yan (Jackie Chan, channeling his character from the Drunken Master films), a seasoned warrior who disguises his prowess beneath the bedraggled appearance of a seemingly wine-besotted beggar.

Lu Yan explains that Jason has been chosen — by prophecy, and apparently by the staff itself — to return this magical weapon to the fabled Monkey King, an immortal warrior who was transformed into stone centuries ago by, yep, the Jade Warlord.

As they embark on a perilous journey to the Jade Warlord's isolated castle, Jason and his new companion are joined by Golden Sparrow (Lui Yifei), a young woman roughly Jason's age, who has her own reason for wanting the Jade Warlord dead.

Golden Sparrow is a fascinating character: She speaks of herself (and everybody else) in the third person, as if she were narrating her own story through somebody else's eyes. She also calms her troubled soul by playing music that Jason finds beautiful ... and she's quite lethal with the bladed hair-sticks that she throws with enviable speed and accuracy.

Before long, our trio becomes a quartet, when they're ambushed by the white-robed Silent Monk (Jet Li), who initially snatches the staff out of the mistaken belief that Jason doesn't deserve to fulfill the mission at hand. Following a short, ah, squabble with Lu Yan — the aforementioned battle royale between Chan and Li — the Silent Monk realizes the error of his initial assumption, and joins our merry little band.

Fusco's script is smart enough to deal with the glaring incongruity of Jason's American heritage, and Li gets off one of the film's funniest lines, as the Silent Monk protests, when forced to acknowledge the boy's role in these events, "But he's not even Chinese!" The subsequent training session is equally amusing, as Lu Yan and the Silent Monk — employing the trademark techniques of Chan and Li, respectively — nearly beat poor Jason to death while trying to shape him into a kung fu warrior.

Right about this time, savvy viewers may begin to notice an intriguing resemblance between this film and The Wizard of Oz. I've no idea to what degree Fusco intended such references, but the similarities pile up until they cannot be ignored. Jason is whisked away to a faraway land, whereupon he begins a journey to a distant castle. He's joined, at intervals, by three companions with unique talents.

His growing recognition of the responsibility thrust upon him notwithstanding, Jason spends the entire picture insisting that he just wants to go home. He and his companions even face an evil witch: the white-haired demoness Ni Chang (Li Bing Bing, deliciously malevolent), and their first major battle with her takes place in a field of flowers (poppies, anybody?).

And I could cite one more major similarity, but to do so would ruin one of this film's delightful surprises ... and so I'll leave you to discover it.

I suspect Fusco is merely layering Asian mythic elements with bits of Western fantasy, but my point is that he does it skillfully; the storyline deftly blends a multiplicity of familiar themes. And, after all, the entire film benefits from this atmosphere of homage: Both Chan and Li gently send up characters and fighting styles from their earlier solo efforts, so a script that similarly echoes myriad antecedents seems equally appropriate.

The inventive and breathtaking action choreography is orchestrated by Woo-Ping Yuen, well known by genre fans for his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Matrix trilogy and (no surprise here) Kill Bill.

The Forbidden Kingdom employs many styles: A flashback that demonstrates the Monkey King's battle skill is very much in the mold of the "flying" choreography from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, while Lu Yan's introductory skirmish takes place in a crowded two-story restaurant, which gives Chan the opportunity to use tables, chairs and bric-a-brac in the manner of so many of his earlier films.

Li gives the Silent Monk a much more aggressive fighting style: one that cleverly exploits the long sleeves of his character's clothing.

Angarano, perhaps remembered from bit parts in Lords of Dogtown and Seabiscuit, and recurring small roles on TV's 24 and Will and Grace, handles himself reasonably well. Let's face it: Just about any unseasoned actor is likely to be blown off the screen by Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and Lui Yifei also is a striking presence in her own quieter way.

But Jason is supposed to be a brash, callow teen — a typically arrogant American — and Angarano delivers the goods. He's never so impatient or obnoxious that we cease to sympathize with him, and indeed he develops Jason into a credible young hero.

I'm particularly delighted, as well, by the degree to which Fusco pays attention to even the smallest elements of his carefully structured script. Nothing is wasted: Early details that feel like afterthoughts return in the climax, to serve a greater purpose. That's good writing.

The Forbidden Kingdom may be a B-film, but it's one of the best I've seen in awhile.

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